One of the recurring themes in the middlebrow novels I have read as part of the Reading 1900-1950 project is religion, church teachings and theological in fighting. It struck me that maybe this is one of the reasons why a lot of these novels are no longer popular. These subjects are of far less interest to the general 21st Century reader as British culture has become more secular and fewer and fewer people go to church on a regular basis.
Church electoral roll data shows growth during the twentieth century until the 1930s when 3,650,000 people were on Anglican rolls. Numbers continued to fall until the 1990s when the fall became less sharp to around a million. The Church of England’s own attendance figures also attest to decline; in 2012 average Sunday attendance figures were just 800 000, half the number that attended in 1968 and significantly lower than the 2002 figure of 1 005 000. So it would not be unreasonable to assume that the readers of middlebrow novels in 1900-1950 would be a lot more familiar and therefore probably more interested in church affairs, religious debates and teachings.
Eric Linklater’s book Judas is the most obviously about a religious topic. Although it is mainly quite a secular telling of the Easter story, it become quite preachy by the end. The penultimate paragraph says
“There was in the sepulchre a significance that Judas among men had been the first to realise and outworn old authority now dimly dreaded. The sepulchre would bring forth a new world of hazard and perpetual change and ever-deeper meaning. A world in which old allegiances would vanish and temporal power would always be suspect, because in the hearts of common men had been implanted belief in their high destiny, and in their minds would germinate tall- stepping thought to scale the barriers of privilege and all things not yet known. Jesus was dead, but the world was born anew with a charter of adventure for its flag, and a pledge to seek ever for the truth….”
Many of the key characters in the novels I read are members of the clergy or their families and the plots are set in the vicarage, manse or cathedral close which would probably have been common settings for early 20th Century readers.
- In Hugh Walpole’s The Cathedral (1922) the story revolves around Canon Adam Brandon and his family and much of the story is set in Polchester Cathedral close or the Cathedral itself
- In EH Young’s The Vicar’s Daughter (1937), two of the leading characters – Edward Stack and Maurice Roper are clergymen and the story is nearly all set in Edward’s vicarage
- Miss Mole also written by EH Young, is set in the manse of non conformist minister Robert Corder
- Elizabeth Goudge’s Rosemary Tree (1956?) is set in a vicarage and is the story of the vicar and his young family
- In Herbert Jenkins’ Adventures of Bindle (1917?) Bindle in plagued by his sanctimonious brother in law Mr Hearty, a lay preacher in the local chapel.
Perhaps even more alien to a modern reader are the references to doctrinal disputes and theological disagreements. In The Cathedral the difference between two Anglican doctrines is central to the plot and brings about the downfall of the leading character Adam Brandon. In EH Young’s The Vicar’s Daughter, two of the main characters, both clergymen, disagree on finer points of Anglican doctrines. But it is very hard for modern readers to understand why these different viewpoints were so important or could have such an impact on the characters
The validity of the restrictions that religious and church teaching – particularly those of the non conformist denominations or “chapel”- place on people’s behaviour is also a recurring theme. In The Adventures of Bindle there is much challenge to the Chapel teaching on the evil of drink. In Carnival, Compton McKenzie satirises the heroine’s great aunts who were “ happy in the exclusiveness of their religion not from any conscious want of charity, but from the exaltation aroused by the privilege of divine intimacy and the joyful sense of being favourites in heavenly places”
In The Rosemary Tree the characters won’t confront bullying for fear of being rude and unchristian and in The Cathedral Brandon’s daughter abandons her future out of a sense of family duty to her bullying father.
Perhaps the most common theme in the books I read was religious teaching on sexual morality – particularly sex before marriage and female sexual morality. This theme was central to the plot in Miss Mole, The Vicar’s Daughter, and Compton McKenzie’s Carnival. At the end of Carnival, Trewllha, who believes his wife has been unfaithful, kills her. “You witch,” He cried. “How have ‘ee the heart to make me so mad? But I deserve it. Oh God Almighty, I deserve it. I that went a-whoring away from my own country… I took a bride from the Moabites,” he moaned. “I forsook Thy paths, O Lord and went lusting after the heathen.”
Sexual morality is also an important theme in The Rosemary Tree and The Cathedral. Michael Arlen’s Young Men in Love (1927) has very little about religion or the church in, but sexual morality is central to the plot. Attitudes to sex before marriage and even infidelity have changed such a lot in the last 60 years that their huge significance in these novels may seem anachronistic these days.
Of course some novels from the first half of the 20th Century and before, set in and around the church are still enjoyed today – Trollope for example or many of Barbara Pym’s novels. But Trollope and Pym’s stories transcend the times and cultures they are set in and have something to say about the human condition that still has resonance with today so remain popular. With some of the middlebrow novels, whilst they had a lot to say to their contemporary readers don’t have lasting relevance.
Nevertheless, for those of us interested in how society has changed in the twentieth century, these middlebrow novels provide a fascinating insight into how our world was changing as conventional morality and beliefs, including the role of women were challenged.